Ticks are surprisingly long-lived for insects, and their life cycle (which is comprised of four distinct stages) can take up to 3 years to complete. Learning what the various stages of the tick life cycle look like, and understanding how they reproduce, can help you to protect yourself from bites this summer.
What are ticks?
Ticks are small, bloodsucking arachnids that carry and transmit a wide range of diseases, including:
- Borrelia mayonii
- Borrelia miyamotoi
- Bourbon virus
- Colorado tick fever
- Heartland virus
- Lyme disease
- Powassan disease
- Rickettsia parkeri rickettsiosis
- Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF)
- Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI)
- Tickborne relapsing fever (TBRF)
- 364D rickettsiosis
Ticks latch on the skin to feed on blood and bite both humans and animals. You can prevent bites by covering up and wearing bug-repellent spray, and there are pet treatments available to protect your dog or cat.
How do ticks reproduce?
Ticks typically mate on the host animal (such as a dog or a deer).
Next, the female takes one final gargantuan meal, ingesting up to 600 times her body weight in blood. Once satisfied, she drops from the host and drags her grotesquely engorged body into a dark, damp spot (like under a leaf or some other debris).
Here, one or two days after mating, she lays a huge batch of up to 3000 eggs before, finally, dying.
These eggs are the first of the four distinct life stages that make up the tick life cycle: egg, larva, nymph, adult.
The life cycle of ticks
Ticks begin their lives as eggs. These are spherical, slightly, translucent, dark brown in color, and are laid in clusters of up to 3000 individuals.
On average, tick eggs hatch after about 2 weeks, though it can take as long as 6 weeks or as little as 6 days for the larvae to emerge.
Tick larvae are tiny (around 0.5mm long) and have three pairs of legs. The newly-hatched babies are already ravenous and will begin looking for their first host as soon as they emerge from their eggs.
While some tick species will stick with the same host throughout their lives, others will have as many as three different hosts. Three-host ticks will have a separate host for each active stage of the tick lifecycle – larvae, nymph, adult – where they will feed just once before dropping off to digest their meal and continue their development. Two-host ticks will have a different host as larvae and nymphs than they do as adults, and one-host ticks will complete their entire life cycle on just one host.
Once the tick larvae find a host, it will hang around and feed for 1 – 3 weeks, before molting into the next stage of its lifecycle.
1 – 3 weeks after hatching, tick larvae will molt and become nymphs. Tick nymphs have four pairs of legs instead of three and look very similar to adult ticks. The key difference between tick nymphs and adults is their size; nymphs are 1.14 – 1.3 mm long, whereas the adults can be more than twice this size.
Once they reach the nymph stage, three-host tick species will begin looking for a fresh source of blood. Tick nymphs will often do this by crawling up to the tops of blades of grass and waiting for a suitable host to pass by. When they do, the tick nymph will climb aboard and latch on, feeding for 4 – 8 days before molting into the final, adult stage of their life cycle.
Adult ticks look like large versions of the nymphs. During this final part of the life cycle, three-host ticks will look for a final host where they can mate and, in the case of the female, enjoy the last meal before egg-laying.
The entire life cycle of the tick is quite long for an insect, lasting 1 – 3 years in total. During this time they may feed on a variety of hosts including mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
How can you prevent tick bites?
Keep an eye out for eggs
Tick eggs are quite easy to spot, as they are laid in such large clusters. If you see any around your backyard, destroy them by pouring salt over them to prevent thousands of babies from hatching in your garden.
Keep in mind!
Whether you’re planning a hiking trip or doing yard maintenance, wearing clothes that cover your skin can help to prevent tick bites. Because if they can’t reach your flesh, they can’t latch on!
Be aware that ticks may crawl over your clothes until they find a way in, and tuck your clothes in (pants into socks, shirt into pants) wherever possible.
Use a bug-repellent spray
You can improve your chances of avoiding tick bites even more by combining your appropriate clothing with a good bug repellent. This is the most reliable way to repel ticks and other biting insects and can keep bugs away from you for up to 8 hours. Sprays that contain pesticides (like DEET or permethrin) are widely considered to be the longest-lasting and most potent options, though sprays containing natural repellents can also work very well.
The entire life cycle of the tick can take up to 3 years to complete and is comprised of four distinct life stages. These are the egg, the larva, the nymph, and the adult. All active stages of the tick life cycle require blood meals to continue their development. Some tick species spend their entire lives on one host, while others will have up to three hosts (one for each active stage of their life cycle).